The study summarized here collected numerous calculations of the average cost, per participant, of each form of educational program. While there is considerable variation across programs, these averages provide helpful estimates of the average program's cost. Results indicate that ABE and secondary education are the least expensive, both averaging an annual cost of $1,987 per participant. Vocational education costs slightly more at $2,126, and college education programs are the costliest, with an average of $10,467 annually per participant.
Graphic 2: Return on Investment of Four Types of Prison Education
These costs were compared to the estimated benefits of recidivism reduction, increased employment and higher wages. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the average prison stay is 2.7 years. The Vera Institute of Justice calculates the average cost of imprisonment to be $40,028 per prisoner per year (in 2022 dollars). Combined, this means that each return to prison costs approximately $107,000. The Department of Justice estimates that the average quarterly wage for released prisoners in the third year following release is $5,600 per quarter.
Using these numbers, the estimated cost savings (i.e., via the reduction in recidivism) and economic benefits (i.e., higher wages and employment) that come from participation in prison schooling reveal that each dollar spent on ABE education yields $2.04. For secondary education, each dollar spent yields $2.25, $3.10 for vocational education, and $1.61 for college education.
These estimates do not include the social costs of crime, such as the costs of victimization, nor the costs to police departments, courts and other various, less tangible costs. Since all these costs should increase as crime increases, the calculations on the returns to investment, which capture only fiscal benefits experienced by prisons or prisoners, are likely low.
A college education (due to its high cost) yields the lowest return for each dollar spent despite having the most significant impact. However, considering the greatest economic benefit per participant, college education has the highest effect, yielding $16,863 in benefit per college participant.
For each form of education, the wage and employment benefits experienced by the students themselves are lower than the program's cost. In other words, while education provides a positive return on investment, most of those benefits will not benefit the students directly (e.g., from wage increases and employment opportunities). Instead, the larger benefit is to the community, through reduced costs for not having to incarcerate as many people.
ABE, secondary, and vocational education each cost about $2,000 per participant. As a result, the breakeven point for recidivism reduction is about two percentage points, well below the decreases in recidivism of ABE (2.9 percentage points), secondary (3.3 percentage points), and vocational (4.31 percentage points). With the high cost of housing prisoners, even a tiny decrease in recidivism is enough to justify the cost of prison education. The breakeven point for college is about 9-10 percentage points, again below the effect of college education in reducing recidivism (12.7 percentage points).